China: what we think we know is wrong

There's been too much lazy categorisation. It's time to get microscopic about power in China, says Kerry Brown.

Kerry Brown
15 May 2013

The father of modern Chinese sociology is Fei Xiaotong, who was trained at the London School of Economics. Fei's book Xiangtu Zhongguo (From the Soil: Foundations of Chinese Society) published in 1947 - two years before the Communist Party (CPC) came to power - contains the most famous elaboration of his core idea, that relationships in China are based on a model of elasticity, with each individual at the centre of a world of connections. There have been immense changes in China in the subsequent sixty-six years, yet Fei's portrait of how China works at the level of intimate and interpersonal links is still highly relevant.

This is most evident among the top echelons of political power in the People's Republic of China (PRC). In the months before the party congress in Beijing in November 2012 that confirmed the change of leadership, even hardened and experienced analysts of China were able to offer little more than guesswork about the succession to Hu Jintao and Wei Jiabao. Would there be seven or nine or more on the politburo's key standing committee; would Hu remain head of the military commission; would (some wondered at the most desperate moments) there even be any leadership transition at all? Only when the the new faces paraded across the stage, in the party's classic ritual, that Chinese citizens and the rest of the world knew for certain.

A turn to modesty

The festival of speculation can now, thankfully, be shelved for another five years. When I worked in the British embassy in Beijing the early 2000s, I remember the fun of listening to those who used to advertise their deep links within China's system, by referring to "informed sources" and inside-track channels. One of the most zealous practitioners of this modern form of fortune-telling declared before 2007 that Zeng Qinghong would be appointed PRC president in that year's congress. The information came, it was said, from an utterly impeccable source in the engine-room of the government compound in Zhongnanhai. 2007 came and went - and so did Zeng Qinghong.

It's time to be more modest. Robert Caro, in his justly celebrated biography of Lyndon B Johnson, writes that one of the prime features of power is that it not only corrupts but reveals. To ascend the slippery slope, the aspiring leader has to conceal, hoodwink, persuade and practice subterfuge; once at the top, you can start relaxing a bit and do what you want. The odd thing in China, however, is that the concealment never really seems to stop. Even when the outcome of almost all aspects of the leadership transition in China is settled - party, military, ministerial, government, and most provincial levels - surely at last the nature of what has happened should be clear?

The fact that this is not so, that the the skills of concealment persist in China, is a lesson in the need to refresh and revise the frameworks through which we try to make sense of them. In particular, we need to start seeing China's realities of power on a much more microscopic level.

For several years, it has been fashionable to talk of "factions" in China, to identify set interest-groups based (for example)on a common career path in Shanghai or through the Communist Youth League. A more recent tendency is to designate a category of "princelings" (those, like Xi Jinping, whose close relatives belonged to the party aristocracy  in revolutionary times).

This faction-speak gives to Chinese politics a neat cohesion and coherence. But it doesn’t work that well any more. The system is far more dynamic than that, in ways anticipated by Fei Xiaotong’s description of how China works. People in China, including in the political system, don't simply belong to some neatly defined group. They operate in more subtle ways, by picking up, developing, discarding, cultivating and recruiting different individuals or clusters. What might appear as factions are better understood in terms of multiple bands, interlinkages and blurred boundaries. It is striking that in China's new leadership, none of its figures fits neatly into any one "silo". There has been too much compartmentalisation.

A year's lesson

Fei Xiaotong’s approach is relevant too in understanding what happens when individuals in China are able to remain aloof from specific alignment to any particular group. The real players in modern Chinese politics are those able somehow to negotiate their way through different sets of political, economic or social interest, to evade being easily claimed by any one, and to operate mostly in their own space. In this lens, Xi Jingping is the most "elastic " of them all - someone who is politically aloof and doesn’t fit easily into any one camp (or type of camp). Indeed, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao had a similar quality, which suggests that a pattern really is at work.

Now that power in China has been marketised and valorised along with everything else, this type of skill - being able to avoid both accumulating too much political debt, and spreading risk in the universe of networks around you - is even more critical. The new name of the game is "patronage diversification", where a lot of success lies in ensuring you extend your risk as far as possible (not unlike playing the stock exchange).

The lazy shorthand of forcing the highly mobile, dynamic and shifting allegiances of modern Chinese politicians into simple frameworks no longer works. It's time to think way harder about how these networks - at the centre of a society that is itself profoundly networked - really operate. That at least is the one great lesson I learned from events in China in the last year.

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